Despite some ‘green shoots’ on an otherwise barren policy landscape, current responses to the issue of detachment from school are generally ad-hoc, short-term and jurisdictionally based.
Lack of national policy
A range of National Partnerships, primarily the National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions and the Smarter Schools National Partnership, included supporting children and young people from detaching from education as part of their aims to support the national goals of 90 per cent Year 12 or Certificate II completion by 2015. While this goal was not achieved a further COAG target of 90 per cent achievement of Year 12 or Certificate III completion by 2020 has been set. The National Schools Reform Agreement retains the 2020 goal and has a priority outcome of ensuring that equity groups attend school more regularly and complete Year 12 or a Certificate III. The challenge for schools however, is that these noble and important goals may unintentionally work against other priority outcomes, such as lowering the proportion of students in the bottom achievement levels of PISA (Program for International Assessment) and NAPLAN testing which will continue to prove to be a disincentive for schools and school systems. Further, initiatives specified in the agreement are overarching, such as reviewing the teacher workforce, and likely to miss the precise needs of the small but important cohort of learners disengaging or detached from education.
There is no national response to disengagement or detachment in schools beyond the broad 90 per cent Year 12 or equivalent completion target. National data collection tends to focus on the outputs of schooling, with jurisdictions measured on improvements in NAPLAN scores or PISA performance. Even when jurisdictions focus on attendance this is at an aggregate level of attendance rate averages and levels, therefore masking students who are chronically absent.
National data collection tends to focus on the outputs of schooling, with jurisdictions measured on improvements in NAPLAN scores or PISA performance. Even when jurisdictions focus on attendance this is at an aggregate level of attendance rate averages and levels, therefore masking students who are chronically absent.
Ad-hoc education provision: Are alternative and flexible schools currently part of the problem or the solution?
There are a range of educational providers that do not predominantly measure themselves by NAPLAN and ATAR benchmarks. Around 900 alternative and flexible learning sites across Australia provide these services and it is estimated that around 70 000 students are enrolled, either separately or concurrently with enrolment in mainstream education systems and schools.
These flexible or alternative learning options are a loose collective of programs or providers who may be located in mainstream schools, TAFEs, Adult Community Education courses and stand-alone educational programs. They provide predominantly modified education and vocational options for children and young people who have previously detached and/or are disengaging from schooling.
Flexible or alternative learning providers are usually based on a ‘wrap-around’ support model with staff ranging from teachers and educators to youth workers, health specialists and counsellors. They seek to support young people to re-engage in education by assisting them to address the multiplicity of problems that contributed to their disengagement, often including health and housing problems.
While these learning providers have to meet basic government accreditation requirements around the safety of students and premises, depending on the jurisdiction and type of delivery, they are not always subject to the same scrutiny and oversight of outcomes as mainstream schools. They are funded in different arrangements across the country, at times needing to rely on schools to pass over sufficient student-based funding for those who have transferred and applying for philanthropic funds to make up the gap in servicing a high-needs cohort. There is little oversight of the schools ‘burning’ hard to handle students by handballing them to flexible or alternative schools.
In a report prepared for the Queensland Department of Education and Training in 2014 titled, ‘Issues of Disengagement from and Re-engagement in Learning’, the authors quoted an unnamed CEO of an alternative school as saying: “You know what, it is so hard carrying the pressure of having to meet the needs of so many kids … we could have a thousand placements and government schools would kick more kids out, if we were willing to keep up with it. We will never keep up”.
Compared to mainstream schools however, there is limited research on, or support for, flexible and alternative learning providers even though they are educating a significant number of our most challenged students. This is because many providers fall outside the mainstream school system and often mainstream schools are just content to move the student on without doing the necessary due diligence in regard to the quality, relevance and personalised ‘fit’ of the program.
The 2014 Queensland DET Disengagement Report authors provide a cautionary note in relation to alternative education providers when they noted, “However, there was some concern expressed about the type of person running such schools, along with external programs, ‘if you haven’t got the right person doing that job, they are a waste of space’.”
While reviews and oversight of alternative and flexible programs are not systematically managed or documented, there is no doubt that many are providing hope and much needed support for ‘lost’ or detached young people who would otherwise not be in any educational program at all. Measuring achievements from these programs, however, is difficult as they are dispersed, and the nature of their vulnerable cohort makes it difficult to track outcomes post program completion. Case studies reveal a range of outcomes achieved for students, including retention in education and transition to further education, reduced barriers to engagement such as housing, and improved academic outcomes. They also highlight the complexity of the scenarios and the challenge in securing less quantifiable outcomes such as engagement, motivation and confidence.
The challenge in demonstrating outcomes makes it difficult for flexible learning providers to secure consistent, ongoing funding for their operations. Their role on the margins of education means they may miss out on the support and resources provided to mainstream schools, including not being a focus in teacher educator preparation despite the obvious need for well trained teachers.
Based upon our estimation of the numbers of currently detached students across the nation and despite the concern relating to the variable quality of alternative education providers, we can reasonably assume that we would have to almost double the capacity of current places in these institutions if we were in any way serious about the goal of re-attaching every person who is currently detached. This would be a necessary but major commitment and would also require provision in locations where alternative programs are currently not provided.
The Australian Early Development Census, a triennial census of all children in their first year of school, identifies that children in the lowest socio-economic community are three times as likely to be vulnerable, starting school behind their peers in a key aspect of child development, as the children from the highest socio-economic community. Nearly one in two children in very remote communities are vulnerable compared to one in five in metropolitan cities.
Lack of ongoing national approach to quality early education particularly for the most disadvantaged
In looking for sustainable policy solutions to eradicate Australia’s school detachment problem, a more cost effective and productive focus should be on prevention, in addition to strategic initiatives to re-attach those who have already been lost. As is often said, it is better to have a fence at the top of the cliff rather than ambulances at the bottom. In the case of disengagement and detachment, the strong safety barrier at the top of the cliff is a high quality early childhood education for all.
Despite the wealth of academic, social and wellbeing evidence around the benefits of starting and intervening early, there is no consistent national approach to early education across Australia. Whilst four year old preschool is provided across Australia, albeit through a series of one year agreements with the Australian Government, access to three year old preschool varies considerably across the country. A workforce focused approach means that the children most likely to access early learning are those from higher socio-economic groups with two working parents.
Based upon our estimation of the numbers of currently detached students across the nation and despite the concern relating to the variable quality of alternative education providers, we can reasonably assume that we would have to almost double the capacity of current places in these institutions if we were in any way serious about the goal of re-attaching every person who is currently detached.
There are significant gaps in achievement and participation between low and higher socio-economic children, and between city children and their rural and regional counterparts in the early years. The Australian Early Development Census, a triennial census of all children in their first year of school, identifies that children in the lowest socio-economic community are three times as likely to be vulnerable, starting school behind their peers in a key aspect of child development, as the children from the highest socio-economic community. Nearly one in two children in very remote communities are vulnerable compared to one in five in metropolitan cities.
Overall, one in five children start school behind their peers, and half of these do not finish their education or go on to employment. Around 40 000 children per annum have undiagnosed special needs that are not identified, assessed and treated prior to commencing school. Children in rural and regional areas, and children in low socio-economic communities, are especially likely to have their needs unrecognised before school.
Access to and the quality of early education varies tremendously across Australia. Children from higher socio-economic communities are more likely to attend preschool, long day care and playgroup, and to have more regular attendance.
Whilst most children attend four year old preschool, children in low socio-economic areas are more likely to attend lower quality early childhood education services. Evidence shows that the benefits of early learning are only realised if children have access to trained teachers.
There is an impending workforce shortage as less students are undertaking early childhood teaching qualifications, whilst workforce attrition is high. One in three preschool services could be without a trained teacher in the next four years. This is likely to affect services with less capacity to attract staff including through financial incentives, and this is most likely to occur to services in low socio-economic areas and in rural and regional areas. A reduction in access to quality staff could further increase the gulf in children’s outcomes.
There are significant opportunities for a positive impact on our national economy, standard of living, education outcomes, and international competitiveness by preventing detachment and by starting early. The Right@Home study shows the home learning environment can be influenced and children with additional needs identified. Evidence from the Children’s Protection Society’s Early Years Education Program (a 24 month, intensive five day a week 3–5 year old early learning for highly vulnerable children) shows significant cognitive, social and emotional gains from participation in the program. The impact on IQ at 24 months participation was such that participants equalled their peers, with large impacts also in resilience and social and emotional development. Although it is too early to see the effects of this program on school participation and outcomes, early indicators suggest that the children involved will start school as ready as their peers whereas their multiple risk factors would ordinarily have set them back.
Whilst most children attend four-year-old preschool, children in low socio-economic areas are more likely to attend lower quality early childhood education services. Evidence shows that the benefits of early learning are only realised if children have access to trained teachers.